My whole life, my mother's had this story about a man who wakes up, after a dream about being a frog, and doesn't know whether he's really a man, or just a frog that thinks it's a man. She always cracks it out when she's drunk and reminiscing about being on the run from the Evil Queen. Bloody stupid story, if you ask me. I mean, what frog jumps about on a daily basis wondering if it's secretly an accountant with a comb-over and bad teeth?
It's ridiculous. Everyone knows what's real and what's not - it's just that sometimes you kinda wish you didn't. Like the times when you save you a sleeping princess from a magic curse, see her true love have his soul sucked out, then traipse blindly through a forest in winter. Yeah - that's when I'd quite like it to be a dream, or a trippy kinda drug flashback. I'd even be happy finding out I'm just nuts and everyone around are patients or staff in the asylum.
It seems like this whole place is just totally made up of mud and things that want to eat me. The sole of my boot is beginning to crack with all the walking, running from side to side under the ball of my foot. It's not painful, or even properly worn out, but the damp is beginning to seep in, creeping into my socks with every step. I feel dirty, dishevelled, still in the clothes we set out in.
I just want to go home, settle down in front of a fire, and have dinner and wine brought to me.
My mother, by contrast, has taken to forest living with ease.
"It's just like being a girl again," she says, and does this happy kind of skip. The warrior from Chin, Mulan, watches her without smiling, and I know the feeling. It's the same feeling I've had my whole life – that my parents are sickeningly cringe-worthy. I know loads of people feel that way about their parents, but when your mother actually sings to bluebirds,I think you've got good reason.
Grumpy, dirty and not a little tired, I let Snow and the rest of the party pull ahead. Aurora too stays behind, her shoes and dress hardly practical in the forest. She tries to make conversation with me, supposedly explaining the history of her kingdom. I'm not sure how much she really knows - there's gaps that make no sense, and all kinds of things that just can't be true. She's been asleep for years, almost as long as I've been alive, and everything's changed about her. Her true love, when he turned up, was old enough to be her father. And then he died.
That's enough to throw anyone's history off, but her chatter is friendly enough, and I'm not about to silence her. As she talks, I allow myself just to zone out, thinking about home.
I'm thinking about the castle's bathroom, all gleaming marble and soft clean towels, and I'm not paying attention to the forest around us. The first I know of the wolf is Aurora's sharp intake of breath, and her hand closing tightly around my bicep.
I can almost see my mother's rolling eyes. Pay attention, Emma, she always said. In the forest, danger is always just around the corner.
"Shit," I say, and reach for a sword that's no longer there. I'd thrown it, in desperation, after the wraith, for all the good that did.
Aurora's behind me, my arms spread out protectively, and then the wolf is flying at us. I've never minded when dogs jump up, never flapped and squealed at their raking paws and horrid breath, but suddenly I understand those who do. The wolf's breath is rank, fetid, and its teeth are gleaming sharp. There's foam at the corners of its mouth, but I don't reckon we'll have time to worry about rabies if that jaw gets a hold of us.
We scramble backwards, but her heel catches and we go down, like human dominoes. The wolf, suddenly deprived of its target, sails over our heads and circles round.
Teeth still bared, the wolf stops two feet from my feet. His nose lifts into the air, and begins to sniff intensely at my boots. Behind me, Aurora's breathing is coming in short, sharp gasps. I reach blindly behind me, and my fingers close around the end of a fallen branch.
I brandish it in front of me, trying to ward of the wolf's advances. The wolf lifts his head, and stares unblinkingly into my face. It feels like it's searching for something, but that's crediting the animal with too much intelligence. This might be the Enchanted Forest, but a wolf's a wolf's a wolf.
I poke the branch forward again, trying to seem as threatening as I can with my arse in the mud, and a frightened princess quivering behind me.
Footsteps crashing through the undergrowth let me know that Mulan, Snow and the guards have finally caught on and I swear, in that instant, the wolf smiles. Like, actually smiles. Then it turns and slopes off into the bushes, leaving barely a rustle behind.
"What the hell?" I ask, out loud.
"That was the Queen's wolf," Mulan says, her voice flat. The others exchange knowing glances, but I'm still in the dark.
"Which one? There's hundreds of them lying about this place." I mean, to start with there's two princesses and a queen crammed into this one forest clearing.
Mulan ignores me, and carries on.
"Snow, your daughter should be its enemy. So why leave them be?"
"You mean, like, the Evil Queen? The whole 'I will destroy your happiness' queen?" The woman is clearly a walking cliché. She's got poisoned apples, magic transportation, some really snappy one-liners if the history books are to be believed, and now wolves. It wouldn't surprise me if she had legions of flying monkeys and possessed bats or something as well.
"I don't know." My mother ignores me completely, frowning off into the undergrowth. I'm not even worried about that: the fact is, they have no idea why her enemy's servant saved my life. Nor do I, and the memory of that lupine grin sends a shiver up my spine.
All day as we walk I keep catching glimpses through the trees of the wolf following us. Hovering at a close distance, it disappears whenever I turned to face it straight on, like something out of a ghost story. No-one else seems to have noticed its presence, and so I too ignore it.
Eventually we stop and make camp, and Snow sends me into the wildwood to find firewood.
"Here," she says, "take this, just in case," and hands me her sword. I heft it across my shoulder, and nod, grinning. I've turned and am walking further into the forest as she calls after me.
"And for god's sake don't just throw it!"
I laugh, and don't look back. The trees grow close, and the tangled undergrowth crowds up their trunks. It's dark in here, but I don't feel threatened. It's not like when bard's tell my Mom's story and the trees pluck and catch at her clothes. The worst thing I see, in fact, is a squirrel and unless they're totally different here to at home, I'm not too concerned.
And then, there it is. The wolf. Like it knew I'd be coming. Somehow, I'm not overly concerned about that, either.
Stood by its side is a boy of no more than ten or so. He's shorter than you'd think, his brown hair wild. His arms and legs are matchstick thin, but his clothes are of good cloth, and his hand is curled into the thick fur at the scruff of the wolf's neck.
"Hey again, wolf," I say, and can't quite keep the tremble from my voice. My grip shifts on the sword, ready to hit out if I have to. I don't know much about complicated swordplay, as the whole wraith thing showed, but I figure a decent swing would do quite a bit of damage.
Neither wolf nor boy move, just stand and stare. I don't move either, and we stand silently as time stretches out between us. Eventually, it seems I will have to make the first move.
"Why aren't you, you know, killing me?"
The wolf growls, lowly, in response.
"You smell of her, of the Queen," the boy translates.
"I smell of her?" The idea is vaguely offensive. I'm sure she doesn't smell bad - in all the stories she's massively image conscious - just... I don't wanna smell of anyone, really.
The wolf makes more noises, and the boy spreads his hands.
"Not of her. Just, like her." He looks at the wolf for confirmation, frowning at the difficulty of this task. "It's the same smell, but different. It's hard to describe, in human terms." The wolf growls more, and the boy laughs before clapping his hand to his mouth.
"You smell like her pack mate," he says, "like her family."
"She was married to my grandfather," I say, and the boy smiles. His tone suggests the wolf meant something else, but for now I'm happy to leave it at face value.
"He wants you to know that as the Queen's family, you will not be harmed by the creatures of this place, or those ahead."
Together they turn, the boy still holding onto the wolf, and head towards the clearing's edge. Just before they disappear, the boy turns back, and raises a hand in farewell.
"Till we meet again," he says, and is gone.